FAMILIARITY may breed contempt. But fortunately, in the case of Hibernian and Rangers, it does not also breed boredom. A minor classic was served up in this tenth meeting between the teams in 14 months.
Hibs didn’t want to contemplate the consequences of defeat. Nor do they have to. Instead, they can savour taking another bite out of Rangers’ Championship lead, which now stands at just five points.
This turned out to be every bit as manic as expected. Perhaps surprisingly for those tuning in from afar on television to a second-tier Scottish game, there was an abundance of quality on view too. Lee Wallace’s fierce strike was re-directed by Darren McGregor’s heel to level the scores after Jason Cummings put Hibs ahead with one of the goals of this or any season.
With Rangers pressing to secure all three points, the inspirational John McGinn won a corner after his free-kick was tipped over by Rangers ‘keeper Wes Foderingham. McGinn’s delivery was missed by everyone in the six-yard box bar Paul Hanlon, who planted a firm header into the unguarded net after 72 minutes. Knowing their season could hinge on seeing out what was left of the game, there were some nervy moments for the home fans thereafter.
While Hibs prevailed, it was refreshing to see both teams cheered off by their fans; Rangers did not play poorly, that much was obvious. They could well have emerged with the win that many would have treated as fatal to Hibs’ title hopes. The chasing Easter Road side, however, proved more clinical with fewer chances in front of goal.
Indeed, Cummings’ opener, after only ten minutes, could barely be described as a chance at all. Taking in a throw-in from David Gray, he turned Rangers defender Danny Wilson and then struck an unstoppable curling shot into the far corner of Foderingham’s goal from 25 yards. With his 35th goal in 66 appearances for Hibs, the 20-year-old is showing why English clubs are becoming interested in his progress.
Marvin Bartley replaced the injured Dylan McGeouch after 18 minutes and with Hibs still in front at half-time, they were intent on securing some breathing space in the second-half.
Like those supporters in the main stand returning to their seats from hospitality, the home team took their time to settle, however. Late returnees from downstairs were spotted shaking their heads as they heard the gory details of Wallace’s deflected equaliser in the 47th minute.
It was exactly how Hibs hadn’t wanted to start the half – by handing the initiative to their opponents. Rangers had already begun to threaten more towards half-time. Indeed, it felt like the interval had come at the right time for Hibs. But few had banked on the home team suffering such a rocky restart.
Wallace equalised with a rifled shot that took a crucial deflection off McGregor, Rangers’ player of the season in the last campaign but charged yesterday with fending off their attacks. He turned to watch the ball speed off his heel past the helpless Mark Oxley.
Rangers sought to take advantage of the helpful intervention from McGregor – Wallace’s shot was going wide, replays showed – but were undone by some later misfortune. Substitute Nathan Oduwa’s curling left-footed shot bashed back off the post.
McGregor then made up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time earlier. The same combination of players produced a different result as Wallace’s shot following a goalmouth scramble was deflected onto the bar by the Hibs defender. It was heroic defending.
Some wondered whether Rangers might come here to secure the point that would maintain their eight-point lead. This notion was blown out of the water from the way they lined up at the start.
The Ibrox side lined-up 3-5-2. Full-backs Wallace and James Tavernier were playing as high up the pitch as the great Gordon Smith in his pomp at this very stadium. It was fascinating to watch two teams with such positive outlooks but differing approaches seek to out-fox one another. There was controversy as early as the third minute when Lewis Stevenson up-ended Jason Holt in the box; play on said the referee, John Beaton.
The intensity did not relent thereafter. After Rangers’ equaliser, Mark Warburton moved quickly to make a double substitution; Nicky Clark came off for Oduwa. Wilson, meanwhile, one of three centre-backs, was replaced by Gedion Zelalem, a midfielder. He clearly had his designs on all three points.
But it would not have been such an engrossing spectacle had it all been one-way traffic, as Warburton later claimed was the case in the second-half.
Cummings should have put his side in front after a superb ball through to him out of defence from McGinn. Cummings’ touch down with his chest, taking him away from Rob Kiernan, was also sublime but he was frustrated in his attempt to beat Foderingham, who came out to block well. Dominique Malonga was too slow in his attempt to play the ball back to Cummings and the chance passed. At the time, it felt like this might have been Hibs’ big opportunity to re-take the lead – one they spurned.
But they are nothing if not resilient these days. Urged on by McGinn’s tireless prompting from midfield, they took full advantage of Rangers’ poor defending at a corner to ensure things have now become very interesting indeed at the top of the Championship.
Hibs: Oxley, Gray, McGregor, Hanlon, Stevenson, Fyvie, Henderson, McGinn, McGeouch, Malonga, Cummings.
Subs not used: Reguero, Fontaine, Keatings, Feruz, Carmichael, Forster.
Rangers: Foderingham, Tavernier, Wilson, Kiernan, Wallace, Halliday, Ball, Holt, McKay, Clark, Waghorn
Subs not used: Kelly, Aird, Thompson, Shiels, Oduwa, Zelalem, Walsh